Monday, June 18, 2007

"Ghosts In A Lonely Parade"

I finished reading Francis M. Nevins' superb biography and critical study, Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, a couple of weeks ago, I guess, and it haunts me still. I was prepared to be affected – just not quite to this degree. The book lingers in my consciousness, as does, always, the prose of The Father of Noir. Poor Cornell ... not lovable but certainly pitiable.

Like references to Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" (which so impressed the future writer), snatches of song lyrics abound in the work of the Master of Suspense; often, they serve to encapsulate the world that forever eludes the Woolrich protagonist. Indeed, this beneficent universe remained always beyond the author's grasp. Last night, a song I have always loved and found extremely moving, Alec Wilder and William Engvick's poignant "Who Can I Turn To Now," insinuated its way into my mind; as its lyrics unfurled, it occurred to me that a couplet in the final A section, like Woolrich's own pithy phrase, "First you dream, then you die," reflects the reclusive genius' perspective: "People are strangers who walk through the town – ghosts in a lonely parade." The line captures the solitary, unknowable Woolrich's dark view of life.

Who Can I Turn To Now

Music by Alec Wilder, Words by William Engvick

Who can I turn to?
Where can I go?

How can I face it alone now –

After the moments we've known?

Who can I turn to now?

Who can I sing to?
How can I smile?

How can I wish on a star, how –

Knowing the way that you are?

Who can I turn to now?

We walked in the spell of the summer;
We kissed in the wind and the rain,

But now the enchantment is over;

The echo and I remain.

People are strangers
Who walk through the town –

Ghosts in a lonely parade.

Oh, where are the dreams that we made?

Who can I turn to now?

"Who Can I Turn To Now" is clearly about the desolation that follows a breakup. Nothing I have read about Cornell – from his own fiction and dubious posthumously published autobiographical manuscript, Blues Of A Lifetime, to the enormously insightful Nevins book – suggests to me that for him "the enchantment" ever began. Perhaps with the Vera of his memoir's The Poor Girl, he "kissed in the wind and the rain." It is obvious that neither his brief, hollow marriage nor his notorious noctural sailor-suited prowlings could obliterate the, in Nevin's phrase, "specter of Anahuac*." I believe that, for Cornell, who dreamed but did not realize, people remained strangers, ghosts in life's lonely parade.

*When Woolrich was a boy of eleven, living with his father in Mexico, he gazed one night at the stars hanging over the Valley of Anahuac, and the realization came to him that he would some day die. From that moment forward, he felt a sense of inescapable doom.

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